Cocktails: How to mix with a smoky whisky

Cocktails: How to mix with a smoky whisky

Does peat enhance a cocktail or ruin it? Let’s delve into the history of how smoky whiskies have been used in mixed drinks and discover how to harness their feisty flavours at home

Cocktails | 15 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Mark Jennings

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Even in the early days of cocktails, there were whispers of smoky whisky finding its way into mixed drinks. In Jerry Thomas’ iconic 1862 book How to Mix Drinks, Islay whisky was explicitly called for in the Spread Eagle Punch, alongside Monongahela, a now-extinct variety of American rye whisky. Though this may sound like an overpowering concoction, it reveals that smoky whisky was indeed considered a viable ingredient in cocktails during that era.

 

Beyond this early mention, explicit references to smoky whisky in classic cocktail books are rare, leading one to assume that its use in cocktails is a modern trend – but historical context suggests otherwise. Whisky writer Dave Broom notes that in the 1920s, when blended whiskies took over from single malts as the most popular style, the blends were often smokier than expected. This means that many cocktails made with Scotch whiskies during that period would have carried a hint of smoke. “Smoky whisky would have been the recognisable part of using Scotch over bourbon,” says Broom, who more recently cemented his own contribution to smoky whisky cocktails (more on this later).

 

Perhaps the reason we find the idea of smoky whisky in cocktails unusual is that without explicit mention in the classic cocktail books, there was little precedent or thought for its use in modern recipes. After people stopped drinking cocktails in volume for a generation or two after the 1920s, many bartenders lacked the understanding of smoky whisky’s historical use in cocktails. As a result, unpeated single malt became the go-to choice, silently replacing its smokier cousin as the typical serve.

 

Smoke as a flavour is, of course, not one-dimensional. There are various facets to it – smoky bacon, herbaceous peat, charcoal, smoked fish, and more. All these flavours can be found in a wide range of smoky whiskies. One of the first drinks in the modern cocktail age to capitalise on this is the now-famous Penicillin. Created by Sam Ross in the mid-2000s when he was working at New York City’s Milk & Honey bar, this neat twist on a Whiskey Sour quickly gained popularity and is now considered a modern classic. Instead of using bourbon, Ross substituted blended Scotch, fresh lemon, and a homemade honey-ginger syrup. To enhance the smoky aromatics, he added a float of peaty whisky. It is this Islay topper that makes the drink sing, keeping the spirit’s smoky essence front and centre.

 

 

A Clover Club with Bowmore 12 Years Old. Credit: AwAye Media

There are two simple ways to easily create smoky cocktails at home. The first is straightforward: take a traditional whisky-forward cocktail, such as an Old Fashioned, and replace the bourbon with a smoky whisky. For a modern twist, consider experimenting with a bacon fat-washed Ardbeg 10, Angostura bitters, and maple syrup – an Old Fashioned that will surely go down in history.

 

To incorporate smoky flavours without overpowering a cocktail, bartenders often use a technique called split base. This approach involves using two different whiskies to create a balanced, harmonious flavour profile. When a cocktail recipe calls for a double measure of whisky, consider using two different spirit profiles from the same category. This allows for the integration of smoky flavours without overwhelming the palate.

 

Alternatively, let your flavour imagination run wild. Smoky whisky pairs surprisingly well with tropical drinks. One example is the Ardbeg Wee Beastie, a pungent, powerful, raw dram with great elements of citrus from maturation in oloroso sherry casks. Combine Wee Beastie with cloudy lemonade and garnish with a big mint sprig. Serve it long with lots of ice on a hot summer’s day for a simple but unexpected way to enjoy peated whisky. For next-level summer vibes, add smoky whisky to a classic Piña Colada.

 

The demand for smoky whisky in cocktails is on the rise, and it is not solely driven by traditional whisky fans. Priyanka Blah, founder of spirits and cocktail platform The Dram Attic and academy chair at World’s 50 Best Bars, believes that a growing number of people have developed an appreciation for the smoky flavour profile of certain whiskies in cocktails. Bartenders have played a pivotal role in this shift, gradually incorporating new flavours and tastes into their creations and expanding their guests’ drinking horizons. Undoubtedly, the demand for smoky whisky in cocktails is on the rise.

 

James Lin, bar leader at Taipei’s Kavalan Whisky Bar and recipient of the Bartender of the Year award in the 2023 Icons of Whisky competition, is one of the modern mixologists unafraid of smoke. He believes that adding smoky and peaty flavours to a cocktail can create a delightful contrast that brings out both the sweetness of the drink and the complexity of the whisky. His Mountains and Sea cocktail showcases Taiwan’s natural scenery and has a balanced taste with a slightly sour note. The addition of green tea, ginseng, and kelp to the smoky flavours of the Kavalan Solist Peaty Cask single malt create a novel flavour profile that “transports the drinker to a mountain and sea landscape”.

A Strawberry and Lapsang cocktail with Nikka Days. Credit: AwAye Media

Of course, not every experiment with smoky whisky in cocktails yields success. Duncan McRae, co-founder
of Woven, strikes a cautious note: “Smoky whisky in cocktails is certainly not for everyone, and it’s not a blanket recipe for success. Different peated whiskies exhibit a wide range of flavour profiles, and for every experiment that yields decent results, there’s a catastrophic alternative not far away.” He recalls a Whisky Sour that unexpectedly tasted like rotten bananas, which polarised opinions among those who tried it. It serves as a reminder that experimentation with smoky whisky in cocktails requires a discerning approach.

 

Few mixed drinks elicit more disdain from whisky snobs than the addition of cola to whisky. However, that didn’t stop whisky writer Dave Broom from scratching the itch. In his 2014 book Whisky: The Manual, Broom sought to identify how to maximise the enjoyment of whisky when not drinking it neat; this included a highly unscientific challenge to find an Islay dram that could marry with cola. It was a mission of sacrilege, and contrarian Broom was up for the challenge.

 

After unsuccessful trials with other Islay whiskies, Broom had a revelation when he finally mixed Lagavulin 16 Years Old with cola. He conducted further tests with his wife and Georgie Crawford, then the manager of Lagavulin Distillery, and their enthusiastic reactions confirmed his discovery. This led to the birth of the Smoky Cokey, a whisky cocktail that gained recognition as a critical drink for the modern age. Broom humorously laments not having copyrighted the name, acknowledging its global recognition and popularity.

 

Charlotte Barker, malt whisky ambassador for Diageo, affirms the appeal: “You can also never go wrong with a Smoky Cokey.” It has since become an established part of the whisky cocktail repertoire, appreciated (sometimes bashfully) by whisky enthusiasts and cocktail lovers alike.

 

The use of smoky whisky in cocktails has deep roots in the history of cocktails, and bartenders are reviving and reinventing this age-old practice. Smoky whisky brings a distinct flavour and complexity to mixed drinks, allowing for a memorable drinking experience, and for those keen to experiment, the possibilities are vast. Embracing smoky whisky in cocktails is a journey of discovery, one that allows the drinker to appreciate the versatility and artistry of this remarkable spirit.

A Smoky Espresso Martini with Talisker 10 Years Old. Credit: AwAye Media

Smoky Cocktail Recipes

 

White Horse

Created by E. Goodall, from William Tarling’s 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book

 

This cocktail from the golden era of mixed drinks was likely to have been made with the famous blend of the same name, but here we have used Woven Experience N. 12.

 

Ingredients

• 45ml Woven Experience N.12 (you could also use a subtle smoky whisky such as Johnnie Walker Black Label, or a split base using a quality blended whisky and a dash of peated single malt)

• 45ml dry vermouth

• 20ml Bénédictine

• 1 dash Angostura bitters

 

Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass and stir down over ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange zest.

 

 

Strawberry & Lapsang

Created by Josh Black for Silverleaf, London

 

Delicate, refreshing, unforgettable – this one takes a little work but is well worth the effort.

 

Ingredients

• 30ml Nikka Days

• 2.5ml Port Charlotte 10 Years Old

• 70ml strawberry lapsang water*

 

Fill a highball glass with ice and build the drink in the glass.

 

* To make (a lot of) strawberry lapsang water: infuse 1 litre of 90°C water with 20g of lapsang tea for 10 minutes. Blend 500g of strawberries with the tea, add 10g of pectin, and allow to sit for one hour. Spin to clarify and sweeten to taste.

 

 

Tali Clover Club

Created by Greig Howitt

 

This drink has a delightful acidic fruitiness which is complemented by the whisky’s maritime smoke.

 

Ingredients

• 50ml Talisker 10 Years Old

• 30ml raspberry cordial*

• 15ml lemon juice

• 15ml egg white (the original drink is made with two dashes of Miraculous Foamer instead of egg white, but we have swapped it here to make it easier to make at home)

 

Shake ingredients together with ice. Strain and serve in a coupe glass straight from the freezer. Express lemon peel oils over the drink, then discard the peel.

 

* To make the raspberry cordial: Howitt suggests buying premium raspberries – frozen at peak season for maximum flavour – and blitzing them into a cordial with sour raspberry leaf tea, coconut water, and salted Peychaud’s bitters (but simpler recipes can be found online).

 

 

Smoky Espresso Martini

Original Espresso Martini created by Dick Bradsell

 

Could anything improve Bradsell’s classic? Stefanie Anderson, bar manager at Gleneagles Townhouse, thinks so.

 

Ingredients

• 25ml Bowmore 12 Years Old or Talisker 10 Years Old

• 25ml coffee liqueur

• 40ml espresso

• 10ml maple syrup or honey

 

Shake ingredients together with ice. Strain and serve in a coupe glass. Grate fresh nutmeg over the top to serve.

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